Millions of years ago, through a fissure in the earth’s crust, emerged the miracle that is today’s Hawaiian Islands. First Kauai, then Niihau, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kaho‘olawe, Maui until . . . at last . . . the island still being born . . . the big island of Hawaii.
Geographically isolated as well as geologically young, Hawaii possesses perhaps the best climate in the world—not too hot, not too cold, and rarely the victim of violent storms.
Human habitation came late. A mere millennium or so ago, bold navigators set forth from islands thousands of miles to the south to follow the stars. They sought a legend – a rumor – of new lands in the north. Only then were the islands of Hawaii populated.
Old Hawaii was ruled by chiefs and chiefesses called ali‘i. By 1810 the rule of the island chain was consolidated to one man, Kamehameha the Great, later known as King Kamehameha. Once the western notion of a monarchy took hold, Hawaii was ruled by kings, and finally one queen, for eighty years. That is until the islands became caught within the twin coils of international diplomacy and capitalism. In the late 1890s, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group of mostly American businessmen, with military backup from the United States. A kingdom was lost.
During the monarchy Hawaii and Hawaiians thrived. A constitution was adopted. Waves of immigrants were welcomed. Education was encouraged and honored. By the mid 1800s, Hawaii was one of the most literate countries in the world. Education was encouraged and honored. This was a particularly stunning achievement given that before 1820, there was no written Hawaiian language. While the impact of the early Calvinist missionaries is debated, one thing is true. In their eagerness to convert the “heathens” to Christianity, the missionaries assembled a method of reading and writing Hawaiian that is the basis for how the language is recorded today. Now a renaissance of the Hawaiian language is in full swing. The written olelo is key to that movement.
Both cattle and horses arrived shortly after the first Europeans. Ranches in Hawaii rapidly became some of the most successful cattle-producing operations in the world, well ahead of Texas, supplying beef for the California gold rush and the U.S. civil war. The granddaddy of them all, Parker Ranch on the Big Island, remains in existence today with over 500,000 acres.
Hawaiian women began a love affair with horses and riding. Because of the rough island terrain, travel by wagon or buggy was often impossible. These fearless horsewomen rode astride and even developed a system of wrapped overskirts to protect dresses from dirt and underbrush called pa‘u. Horses gave women a freedom to move about they’d not had before. Ladies Riding Societies formed to promote the cultural practice of pa‘u riding. Today this romantic style of riding is commemorated in during community parades with princesses representing each island.
By the turn of the twentieth century Hawaii was a study in contrasts. Cowboys and kahunas, wild pigs and steamships, hula dancers and rickshaws, land barons and mail-order brides made up the stuff and substance of the islands’ colorful history. The rise of the sugar industry gave great fortunes to a few and bypassed the many. Hawaiians today still fight to right the wrongs of that era. Yet despite it all, those times evoke a great nostalgia.
It is during these times that my stories begin. Although these tales are pure fiction, I found inspiration in many wonderful pieces of Hawaiian history. Just as the colors are deeper, the smells sharper, and the sun brighter in Hawaii, the true stories of the people carry richness beyond imagining.
A few years ago, on a tour of Hulihe‘e palace in Kona I came face to face with the portrait of a striking young woman. Much has been written about the last crown princess of Hawaii, Victoria Ka‘iulani Cleghorn. Born in 1875, she was the next in line for the crown in 1898 at the moment the nation of Hawaii was dissolved and Hawaii was annexed to United States. The kingdom of Hawaii was no more.
Beautiful, cultured, and strong-willed, Ka‘iulani had spent her entire life preparing to sit on a throne that no longer existed. A passionate advocate for her people, she no longer had a way to serve them.
The historical Ka‘iulani died in 1899, at the age of twenty-three, less than a year after the annexation. She fell from her horse in a storm and sickened. Her doctors called it “inflammatory rheumatism,” but most people of the time agreed she died of a broken heart.
But what if this princess had not died? What if, instead, she’d found the will to live? What if she believed that her people needed her now as never before, and that she must go on? It is that possibility that I explore in the world of the Hawaiian Ladies Riding Society.
Please, join me. We are never too old to believe in princesses, are we? At least I hope not!